Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron is a well-intentioned, beautifully crafted and technically superb animated masterpiece that will probably bore most adult viewers to tears, but a younger demographic should love it to death.
It's the story of a brave stallion (voiced by Matt Damon), living in the Old American West, who is captured by a squadron of pale-skinned soldiers and almost broken by a sadistic Colonel (James Cromwell), who sees the mustang as the personification (well, horseonification) of all of the challenges that taming this New World will entail.
After escaping from the barracks along with an Indian prisoner, the young brave Little Creek, he sets out on a quest to rejoin his lost herd. But the soldiers aren't going to give up on this rebellious horse, dubbed "Spirit" by his Native American friend, without a fight...
Bravely, the film-makers resisted the easy solution of giving the horses human voices. Matt Damon narrates the story from Spirit's point-of-view, but the exchanges between the horses consist solely of neighing and grunting. Of course, they are anthropomorphised to an extent: they're a heck of a lot smarter and more emotional than real animals, and the addition of eyebrows and expressive mouths allow them to emote at the expense of naturalism.
To compensate for the lack of dialogue, a collection of songs by Bryan Adams illustrates much of the action. It's fashionable these days to bash the Canadian crooner, so don't let me buck the trend. His horribly over-sentimental and repetitive ballads dominate the film to the point where another spews from the speakers seemingly every five minutes. But if you're a fan you'll be in for a treat, I guess.
The animation is a stunning mixture of hand-drawn and computer-generated, a combination dubbed "tradigital" as it is both traditional and digital. The scenery is majestic and the characters move exactly like their real life equivalents.
And perhaps that's the problem. The film-makers haven't taken enough artistic license to really make the characters and animation truly engaging. In a way, it's like the trap that Final Fantasy fell into - so realistic that you wonder why they didn't just shoot live action. The playful "stretch and squash" and mild suspension of the laws of physics that characterise most animation is not present here, and so ironically the perfectly captured motion looks stilted and boring.
Dreamworks' previous animated release was mega-hit Shrek, and it's funny to think that they followed up that irreverent cartoony comedy with this overly earnest historical fable. Predictably enough, Spirit didn't earn nearly as much as its predecessor, but it still did respectable business.
With its lack of dialogue, a non-human main character, the ground-breaking combination of traditional and digital animation and its shortage of cheap cartoonish gags, Spirit bucks a lot of trends for a family-oriented animated film. If only it was as engaging as it was worthy. Top quality video, audio and extras make this a great purchase for the kids' Christmas stockings, if not for the more mature animation aficionado in your life.